Poor Women in a City Church

A second vignette of Belfast life portrays the devotions of Catholic women in an unheated Belfast church. The poem forms a pictorial canvas recalling classical paintings of groups of worshippers in similar circumstances.

Heaney focuses first on light-source and temperature effects: small wax candles melt to light, then on movement and reflections: shadows on smooth surfaces (flicker in marble); centred reflections on the curvature of shiny, metal surfaces (bright/ Asterisks). 

The poetic eye moves on to discover the target of their piety in a ‘chapel’ devoted to Jesus’ mother (a revered Catholic figure beloved of women in particular); it comes to rest in front of the Virgin’s altar where the candles are buffeted by stronger draughts of air: Blue flames …. Jerking on wicks.

Heaney sums up the group of women in a single couplet: collectively old, sallow-skinned, chilled, widowed and devoted (Old dough-faced women on their knees with black shawls/ Drawn down tight).

The scene lacks warmth and substance: candles have Cold-yellow … tongues; chilly blue flames lack solid shape (mince and caper); private prayers (whispered calls) are delivered to a numinous absence: Take wing up to the Holy Name.

So it is (Thus), in daily obedient devotion, that the women fall silent and genuflect before Golden shrines, altar lace,/ Marble columns and cool shadows. 

Heaney lends them dignity; they might be poor in status and poor in pocket but they are rich in spirit. The same light that subdued colour has airbrushed the marks of age and poverty; theirs is the unblemished skin texture of classical religious canvases: In the gloom you cannot trace/ A wrinkle on their beeswax brows.

  • wax: yellowish substance secreted by honeybees; beeswax
  • melt to: turn to liquid in return for producing light;
  • flicker: burn fitfully, now bright now faint;
  • marble: hard flecked variety of limestone used in architecture, that can be polished smooth;
  • asterisks: *******
  • Virgin: Mary, mother of Jesus subject of great veneration;
  • jerking: describing short, sudden movements;
  • wick: central strip of a candle which is slowly consumed by the flame;
  • dough-faced: their faces the greyish, flour colour of the mixture used for baking bread;
  • shawl: fabric worn over head and shoulders
  • stalls: church seating, pews;
  • mince: walk affectedly;
  • caper: dance playfully;
  • take wing: take off, fly upwards
  • Holy Name: Catholic reference to Jesus as an object of devotion;
  • shrine: place associated with a holy person or relic;
  • lace: fine, open, patterned fabric;
  • still: quieten, hush, calm;
  • gloom: (slightly depressing) partial darkness;
  • wrinkle: facial lines associated with age or stress;
  • brow: face especially forehead;
  • 15 lines mainly of 8 syllables in 3 stanzas;
  • Heaney works through the challenges and restrictions of a sophisticated rhyme scheme aabab, ccdcd ;
  • use of the word Poor in his title offers us a selection of interpretations: the women are not well off; he feels sympathy for them laying themselves open to such unfavourable conditions; he shakes his head at the extent of their religious zeal;
  • Heaney’s considered use of prepositions illustrates close observation: in marble recognises a reflective effect seemingly beneath the surface of polished marble (as opposed to on the surface of brass); prepositions abound (6 in the first 5 lines);
  • Heaney studies flames: they flicker … reflect … jerk…lick (tongues); they are affected and playful: mince and caper; the only evidence of heat:  they melt to light
  • prayers take wing: the earliest allegorical, religious paintings transmit the invisibility of ’holy’ ‘messages via bird images.
  • alliterative and assonant effect are generally in pairs: sacred place/ wax candles; asterisks/ candlesticks; shawls/ drawn; old dough…; beeswax brows;


  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
  • the music of the poem: twelve assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies;
  • the first lines, for example, weave together bilabial [w], a cluster of plosives (bilabial [p] [b] and alveolar [t][d]) alongside sibilant [s];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; interlabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ];  voiceless dental fricative  [θ]  as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as  in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in  yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ]   as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ]  as in ring/ ang

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